FORT WALTON BEACH — Former Okaloosa County School District Investigator Arden Farley pleaded no contest Tuesday to four counts of failure to report child abuse and was placed on three years' probation.
The plea came on the day a jury was to have been selected to try Farley, the first of four School District employees faced with child-abuse-related charges since Sept. 13, 2017, whose case has made it to court.
Circuit Court Judge Michael Flowers credited Farley with taking responsibility for his failure to report child abuse and praised him for many years of work with the School District.
"I am aware of his service to the children of the Shool District," Flowers said.
Flowers said the law draws a clear distinction between those who commit child abuse and those who fail to report it, and the case against Farley provided no evidence he participated in abuse.
"In reviewing the case, I cannot find where Mr. Farley condoned, initiated, supported or perpetrated any wrongdoing to a child," Flowers said.
Flowers also noted the law is clear for Farley and all mandated reporters that they bear responsibility to report abuse when they see it. In passing sentence, the judge withheld an adjudication of guilt, which Farley said means he will retain his work benefits.
"Mr. Farley has taken responsibility for his failure to report child abuse," Flowers said.
Farley released a statement Tuesday in which he conceded not making a call to the Florida Department of Children and Families to report child abuse in 2016 after his investigation found Kenwood Elementary pre-K disabled teacher Marlynn Stillions violated the School District's code of ethics by physically mistreating a child.
He also maintained, as he had since his arrest, that he never "observed or reported" child abuse in the Stillions case.
"Ethics violations were confirmed and in accordance with School Board Policy the investigation was forwarded appropriately," his statement said.
Farley's plea was made to the court and not arranged with the State Attorney's Office. Bill Bishop, Okaloosa County's chief assistant state attorney, said his office was confident it would have obtained a conviction had the case been tried.
"We're pleased Mr. Farley has entered a plea taking responsibility for his role," Bishop said. "We look forward to the next stage and expect the trial of Marlynn Stillions to proceed to trial in October.
"The state will be seeking a jail sentence in that case," Bishop said.
In his official findings, Farley confirmed allegations that Stillions used a bottle to spray students with vinegar, videotaped a student and used her foot to push autistic student Noah Perillo along a lunchroom aisle. It also was confirmed she withheld food from students, including Noah, ate the food herself, and also took the students' meals home.
Farley said in his statement he looks forward to returning to his job with the School District.